Every year the reviewers at MusicWeb
International are asked to select their Recordings of the Year.
In 2008 I could have kicked myself because I failed to nominate
the superb Hyperion Beethoven symphony cycle recorded live by
Sir Charles Mackerras at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival (review).
How I could have overlooked one of the finest Beethoven cycles
to appear for years is beyond me; the only excuse I can make
was that I’d forgotten the set because it had not come to me
That Mackerras cycle was given using orchestras playing on modern
instruments. For the first eight symphonies Sir Charles used
the Scottish Chamber Orchestra but for the Ninth the larger
forces of the Philharmonia were engaged. I presume this was
done because the Edinburgh Festival Chorus was singing and it
was felt that the orchestra should be in scale. However, for
those wondering what a Mackerras reading of the Ninth using
smaller forces might sound like we now have the answer thanks
to Signum. They have issued this 1994 Edinburgh performance
which employed the period forces of the Orchestra of The Age
of Enlightenment. The choral contribution is in scale because
the chamber choir, The New Company, was on hand for the finale.
The sound of this performance is bracing from the outset. The
lean, spare textures ensure that the playing of the OAE comes
across with great clarity. In particular, the woodwind lines
are easily audible. The period timpani, played with hard sticks
make their presence felt at climaxes. Mackerras directs a vigorous
reading of I, impelling the music forward with consistent and
impressive energy. The overall impression that I had was that
this is a very dynamic performance.
The scherzo is lithe and crisp. The performance has great rhythmic
drive, as is essential. In the trio the woodwind playing is
deft but, in case anyone should think that this is a “hair shirt”
stuff – it most certainly is not. The warmth of the strings
in the trio should provide reassurance. Once or twice the principal
horn displays little moments of fallibility but these are very
much the exception; the general standard of playing in this
performance is high indeed. One thing did surprise me: the well-articulated
timpani sound almost modern but I’m sure that’s just because
my ears had adjusted to the sound produced.
In III Mackerras and his players bring out the profundity of
the music extremely well. However, the profundity is not achieved
through being ponderous. On the contrary, the music is kept
on the move at all times. Indeed, from 7:47 onwards the string
decorations around the slower-moving theme (wind and horns)
sounds almost jaunty at Mackerras’s fluent tempo. The string
and woodwind playing is very fine in this movement – and the
horn playing is completely back on form.
At the start of IV I like the way that the cello and bass recitative
passages are dispatched briskly; their rhetoric is almost conversational
– the passage is delivered in a similar fashion on Sir Charles’s
later Hyperion disc. When the Big Tune arrives it unfolds easily
at first and when the full orchestra gives out the melody (4:33)
the theme sounds properly jubilant. Neal Davies’s opening solo
(5:58) is impressive and clearly articulated. When the choir
enters they make a very favourable impression and everything
is pleasingly in proportion: the choir doesn’t swamp the orchestra
when singing full out. The New Company is a professional ensemble
and it shows. Sample the way they sing the passage beginning
‘Seid umschlungen Millionen’, especially once all four parts
are involved, and note the attention to detail – sforzandi,
for example. I suspect there are some male singers in the alto
section, which has an excellent cutting edge. When the full
choir proclaims ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ (12:54) the singing
is excellent and really clear. The passage is as exultant as
it should be and I relish the fact that this full sound is not
massive. One has the impression of joyful eagerness.
The soloists make a good and well-balanced quartet. Mackerras
adopts a brisk pace for the tenor’s martial solo (from 9:12).
I like that. It’s a similar approach to that of Sir John Eliot
Gardiner, though Gardiner takes it faster on his recording.
I prefer the Mackerras speed, which is similar to the one he
adopts in his Hyperion recording. I also like John Mark Ainsley’s
agile and accurate delivery of this difficult solo. I’ve already
mentioned the excellent Neal Davies. The ladies don’t have such
prominent solos as their male colleagues but they sing very
well indeed in the quartets. The final passage for the soloists
– their intertwining quartet at the poco adagio, ‘Alle
Menchen werden Brüder’- is expertly blended and eloquently delivered.
The orchestra’s busy contrapuntal section that follows the tenor
solo (10:40 - 11: 54) is vigorous but Mackerras and his players
make every strand clear – no mean accomplishment. Indeed, the
orchestral playing throughout the finale is alert, responsive
and expertly articulated. The last few minutes of the movement
– the piccolo a telling presence - are exultant, the music sweeping
all before it; small wonder the Edinburgh audience responds
The sound for this performance originates, I think, from BBC
radio engineering. It’s good and lots of detail registers though
occasionally one is conscious of the big Usher Hall acoustic.
This is an excellent account of the Ninth and forms an invaluable
supplement to Sir Charles’s superb cycle of the symphonies on